I picked up 1992’s Jaran in 1992 and what with one thing and another only just now got around to finishing this anthropological romance (as mandated by this very commissioned review). I have read the Crossroads series so I am not unfamiliar with Elliott’s fiction; it’s just this one I didn’t read at the time. Why? It tickled a peculiar and no doubt shameful prejudice of mine, of which more later0.
In a future where the human worlds have been annexed by the vast and powerful Chapalii Empire, Charles Soerensen is the sole human with aristocratic rank in the Empire. His much younger sister Terese “Tess” Soerensen is his sole heir. This is less fun for Tess than one might think; when we meet her she has only just realized her now ex-fiancé was only interested in her because of the power and weath the cad thought she represented. Heartbroken, she sets off for Dao Cee (which we humans designate as Delta Pavonis), one of the systems the Chapalii granted Charles when he was ennobled (altogether an odd way to punish his failed rebellion against the conquerors).
Charles has two worlds under his control: Odys, whose natives were forced to assimilate Chapalii ways1 and Rhui, whose natives were not. In fact, Rhui has been kept isolated from the interstellar community and innocent of foreign ways. The low-tech humans on Rhui believe that they have always lived on Rhui, which, to their way of thinking, is the only inhabited world. Tess’ plan is to head to Jeds, one of the great cities of Rhui, where she plans to live under an assumed identity. Thanks to some misplaced curiosity about a secretive party of Chapalii currently touring Rhui, she ends up … somewhere else on Rhui, far, far from Jeds. Somewhere less ocean-y and more steppe-y.
Luckily for Tess, the inhabitants, the nomadic Jaran, have strict taboos forbidding the mistreatment of women. When she encounters the nomads, they offer her food and shelter rather than anything unseemly. Because the nomads are her only hope for staying alive long enough to get back to Jeds and civilization, the only reasonable course of action is to travel with them. But to travel with the Jaran is to adopt at least some of their ways.
There are a couple of complications. The first is that the party of Chapalii that Tess was tracking are now posing as pilgrims and have hired some Jaran to Chapalii take them on a tour of holy sites. The chosen group just happens to be the same one that is sheltering Tess. This is not as coincidental as it sounds; the nomads were in the area to rendezvous with the supposed pilgrims, while Tess was in the area to spy on the Chapalii . Both Tess and the Chapalii have good reasons to hide their true identities from the nomads. They are forced into an uncomfortable alliance in order to do so.
The Chapalii are paying their escorts in horses, which gets us to the second complication, Ilya Bakhtiian. Jahar (or leader) of his clan, he is sullen and somehow irresistibly alluring in a “Mr.Darcy meets Genghis Khan” way, Ilya has a grand plan to unify all of the Jaran clans into one mighty force under his command, a force that he will use to sweep the encroaching villagers from the face of the steppes. Ilya has gone a long way toward making his dream a reality — the horses are an important component in his plan — but at the cost of making himself and anyone close to him targets for the warriors opposed to the plan.
The Jaran make a distinction between marriage and mere love affairs; Tess enjoys the affections of a number of Jaran warriors without violating any taboos. Grumpy Ilya does not join in the game of affairs but he does have his eye on the strange visitor and is nursing a cunning plan to make her his own.
Egregious prejudices first: When it comes to nomads versus cities, I will always come down on the side of civilization. I couldn’t help but notice that Ilya is basically a Russified Genghis Khan and that he is well on his way to recapitulating Genghis’ impressively murderous career. I also could not help but notice that while Tess is a bit squeamish when it comes to violence that she personally witnesses, she doesn’t seem to have much trouble with Ilya’s oft-repeated ambitions regarding the sedentary peoples of the steppes.
The rebellious human resisting the vast alien empire is a well-tried trope but it wasn’t clear to me what exactly the Chapalii were doing that Charles found so egregious, aside from the fact of having absorbed the human worlds. It’s not at all clear that Charles is in the right here or that humans will be better off outside the Empire than they are in it. This may be intended to parallel the Ilya plot: a great civilization endangered by a seemingly manageable community of barbarians.
I was a bit distracted early in my reading by the fact that Rhui’s explicitly human natives somehow got to the planet before humans got spaceflight (but after blonds evolved, so not so very long ago as species measure time). This aperçu led to a further question: why is that no one else seems to wonder how the natives got to Rhui? It turns out the question is not ignored and there are answers. Of course, those answers only raise more questions, ones I assume are answered in the future volumes of the series.
There’s a lot of traveling in this book2. Rhui seems to have ample steppes suitable for lavish description. Rhui also has a deeper history than most of the people living on it realize, although Tess does begin to connect the dots once she gets a good look at the ancient buildings the nomads revere as holy places.
The Jaran way of life is highly structured and gender roles are particularly well defined (although different from current Western gender roles). Tess resists being forced into the niches the Jaran deem womanly by playing on her status as foreigner, adopting elements of both male and female roles3. This felt like … cheating on her part, somehow, but given Ilya’s propensity for withholding the rules of the game from her, probably the best strategy she could adopt. It also allows Tess to remain an essentially modern woman despite her more traditionally-minded companions, which some readers may prefer.
I am left wondering how all of this plays out. No offense to Ilya, who is plucky and all in a moody way (he could be played by a young Colin Firth or perhaps a young Alan Rickman), but I do hope that the he does not succeed in doing to the civilized peoples of Rhui what the Mongols did to the civilized peoples of Eurasia.
0: I may have neglected to pick up Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People back when it was first released because I somehow confused it with Jaran, which I owned.
1: Who Charles charmingly regards as extinct, because their current mode of existence does not meet his exacting standards.
“When the Chapalii modernized Odys, they completely wiped out the old indigenous culture. Accidentally, of course. A by-product of civilization. All of the indigenes died.”
“Aren’t there some onasiu left?” she asked, eager to show off her knowledge.
“In arcologies. That doesn’t count.”
I didn’t care for Charles.
2: On horseback. Eh. I come, as most people do, from a lineage of proper coast- and island-dwellers. Never took to horses, myself. Or continental interiors without seas, or at least great lakes.
3: Which is a rude surprise to the Jaran warriors who run into her, since they don’t expect women to be anywhere near as stabby as she becomes after some training with the saber .